By Patricia L. Fry
If you want to get published, you have to make a good first impression when approaching an editor or publisher. How? Write a good—no, write a great query letter.
Why is the query letter so important? It saves everyone a lot of time. Editors are more likely to look at a one-page letter than an entire manuscript. And you don’t have to write the piece until you know there’s an interest. Often, an editor will suggest changes to your initial idea. If the article is already written, you’ll have to do a rewrite.
For example, two years ago, I queried Technology and Learning Magazine about an article on preparing girls for careers in technology. Instead, the editors asked me to write about public relations programs in American schools. I recently queried Children’s Voice about an article highlighting the healing powers of gardening for at-risk children. The editors saw more merit in a piece featuring specific gardening programs for kids, however. These are only a few examples showing the benefits of querying first.
While there is plenty of room for creativity when writing a query letter, there are also certain standards. Following is the anatomy of a query letter:
1: Date your letter and address it to the appropriate editor. If the source you’re using for contact information is over six-months old, I suggest confirming the information. Use a current issue of the magazine or their website, for example. If you’re not sure how old your information is, send an Email or call to verify the contact information.
2: State your intent. Identify your correspondence as a query letter. I typically write, “I’d like to propose an article featuring…” Or I might start my letter with an attention-getting statement. Here’s an example: “Do people often interrupt you when you’re talking? Are your comments sometimes ignored? Do you feel inadequate when expressing your ideas in a business meeting? In a recent survey, over fifty-percent of the women polled said they do not feel as though they’re taken seriously at work. My article, ‘Be Heard: How to Get People to Listen When You Speak’ could change your life.”
3: Give a synopsis of your proposed article or book. Briefly and succinctly describe your story and your slant. Introduce your experts and/or supply a list of research sources and one or two sample anecdotes. Avoid inundating the editor with details, but don’t play guessing games, either. Be straightforward in your presentation. Give the editor everything she needs in order to make her decision while keeping the synopsis portion within a paragraph or two.
4: Demonstrate that you’ve done your homework. Hopefully, your article or book idea is on target for this magazine or publisher. That’s the first indication that you’ve done adequate research. If you believe that your article is a good fit for a particular column, mention it. Also, state your proposed word count based on the magazine’s or publisher’s guidelines
5: List your qualifications. If you have a particular expertise related to your proposed topic, mention it. In a query letter for my article on handling the irate customer, I revealed that I worked for two years in customer relations and attended workshops on this subject. When querying for my article about helping instead of criticizing neighborhood kids, I told about my affiliation with a youth mentoring organization and a Neighborhood Watch program. When querying about a writing or publishing-related book, I would provide my resume as a freelance writer/author/publisher.
6: Give your writing credits. This is no time to be modest. List your most significant and pertinent works. If you’ve sold anything similar to this topic, say so. If you’re hard-pressed to come up with appropriate writing credits, go ahead and mention your work on the church newsletter or the fact that you’re a 4th grade teacher. Send a couple of published clips, if available.
7: End it. I generally close with something like, “Please let me know if you’re interested.” In the case of a rather complicated piece, I might say, “If you’d like to see a more detailed outline, please let me know.
8: Keep things simple. Make it easy for the editor to work with you. First, find out how the editor prefers that you send your letter—regular mail, email or fax, for example. This information generally appears in their Guidelines for Writers (usually available on their web site or by request through the mail). Send just what the editor requests (a query letter and 3 published clips, for example). If he or she wants more later, they’ll ask.
Like many writers, I have a web site. At the end of my letter, I often add my website address and write after it, “for more about me.”
Keep your query letter to one page if at all possible. I’ve been known to spill over to a page and a half when I have several experts and research sources to list and that’s forgivable.
Additional tips (and these are important, too):
• Neatness counts.
• Always include a self-address-stamped envelope (SASE).
• Log every transaction. List date sent, magazine/publisher name and article/book description. Leave a space to record any notes.
The Waiting Game
Waiting for a response is sometimes difficult. With the advent of email, however, the waiting period can be eliminated completely in some instances. I’ve been rejected (or had an article accepted) just minutes after emailing a query. But expect to wait for anywhere from 10 days to 3 months after sending a query letter by mail. The average wait is probably 4 – 6 weeks. Before using email to query, make sure this is okay with the editor. While some editors adore this mode of communication, others will not look at anything that isn’t sealed in an envelope.
I like to use email, because, generally, an editor will respond more swiftly. Some editors and publishers never respond. My records indicate that nearly one-third of the query letters I sent last year were ignored. It’s frustrating, isn’t it? And the waiting game can be most annoying.
New writers, especially, often lose patience with editors who take their time to respond. One way around this discomfort is to avoid putting all of your hopes and dreams into that one query letter.
I don’t wait for query responses anymore because I’m too busy sending out new queries.
Send your query to more than one editor. Write new queries on different topics. Be productive and you won’t get stuck in wait mode
Here are some additional tips:
• Wait at least 4 – 6 weeks before inquiring about a query or a manuscript. Then send a tracer letter stating, “According to my records, on January 12, 2002, I queried you about an article featuring techniques for attracting birds to your patio garden. I’m writing now to inquire as to the status of that idea.” I’ve sold several articles by following through like this. Editors misplace letters. Sometimes queries are never received.
• Set goals. Send a query on a new topic every day or submit three queries per week, for example. I send between 30 and 50 queries each month.
For those of you who are still a little overwhelmed by the idea of writing a query letter, I’ve devised this guide. Ask yourself the following questions to help you write that query.
1. To whom shall I address this query?
2. What type of material is this publication requesting? (How-to articles, essays, exposes, inspirational pieces…?)
3. What do I have to offer them that might meet their current needs?
4. What aspect of my idea will appeal to them most?
5. How can I let the editor know that I’m familiar with his publication/publishing company?
6. How can I convince the editor/publisher that I can create a good and credible story from this topic?
7. How can I convince the editor/publisher that I am the person to write this piece?
8. How can I make it easy for the editor/publisher to work with me?
Patricia Fry is a full-time freelance writer and the author of 25 books. Her latest book contains sample query letters. Order, “The Right Way to Write, Publish and Sell Your Book” today at CLICK HERE. Visit Patricia’s BLOG often.